Ministers and lawmakers in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline coalition rejected the harsh criticism leveled by the military and the defense establishment on Saturday against the “terrorism” of extremist settlers who have attacked Palestinians in recent days.
Hundreds of Jewish Israeli settlers have ransacked Palestinian towns in reprisal attacks against Palestinian civilians following a deadly terror shooting near the Eli settlement last week.
The heads of the military, the Shin Bet, and the police issued a joint statement on Saturday evening strongly condemning the ongoing settler attacks in the West Bank and branding them “nationalist terrorism in the full sense of the term.”
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, head of the coalition’s far-right Religious Zionism party, prodded the military and the security forces for a stronger response to Palestinian terrorism, and appeared to suggest that law enforcement takes a heavier hand with settlers compared to other communities.
“The attempt to create an equivalency between murderous Arab terror and [Israeli] civilian counter-actions, however serious they may be, is morally wrong and dangerous on a practical level,” Smotrich wrote on Twitter.
“The IDF and security forces must act with much greater firmness against terror and rioting by Arabs,” he added. “We can’t accept a situation in which settlers feel like sitting ducks on the roads and around settlements every day and count their dead.”
Smotrich railed at the use of administrative detention for far-right Jewish suspects and claimed security forces were carrying out “collective punishment” in the settlement of Ateret following an attack earlier Saturday in the Palestinian village of Umm Safa, referring to reports of checks at the settlement entrance.
“But even in this complex situation taking the law into one’s own hands is bad, damaging and may lead to a loss of control and dangerous anarchy,” Smotrich said, calling on “everyone to refrain from acts that harm settlement.”
Energy Minister Israel Katz said that “there can be no comparisons; terrorism is the terror that Palestinians are perpetrating against Jews, soldiers and innocents.”
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who on Friday urged Jewish settlers to “head for the hilltops” to establish and expand illegal outposts in response to Palestinian terror, said that “even in these trying times, when the blood is boiling, you must not take the law into your hands.”
Ben Gvir said law enforcement should enforce policies equally between communities and not “pick and choose” where to apply the law.
The far-right minister said it was unacceptable that administrative detentions, for example, should “be used only against settlers, and not against [criminals] in Arab society.”
Ben Gvir, who made a career defending Jewish terror suspects before entering politics, had been a vocal proponent of employing the controversial practice of administrative detention to fight a deadly crime wave in Arab communities across Israel that has claimed the lives of over 100 people so far in 2023.
The tool, currently used by the defense minister against terror suspects, allows individuals to be held without charge for indefinitely renewable six-month terms, while law enforcement can choose not to reveal the evidence against them.
The police and the Shin Bet have cautioned they may not have the legal authority to employ tools used in the fight against Palestinian terror against civilians.
On Sunday, Ben Gvir ordered police to conduct an investigation into “collective punishment” at the West Bank settlement of Ateret.
In a statement, he said he had demanded an explanation as to why the gate to Ateret was blocked, and those entering and leaving the settlement were made to undergo inspections. In addition, he said the police needed to explain why a man was tasered by special forces.
“Ben Gvir made it clear last night in a conversation with Police Commissioner [Kobi] Shabtai and the regional commander that he opposes any violation of the law. But at the same time, it is forbidden to punish an entire community,” the statement read.
In a statement, the leadership of Ataret said that those involved in the violence were not residents, but that some had escaped into the community after the attack on Umm Safa when police arrived at the scene.
“In order to locate them, the army commanders decided to check the entrance and exit of the settlement in order to identify as many of them as possible,” the statement read.
The settlement said that the gate to the community was currently not blocked by the army, but instead “people who came from outside the settlement are now blocking the exit to prevent the army from taking vehicles that were used by those who arrived on Shabbat.”
Ben Gvir also railed against law enforcement for “giving in to the violence” by members of the Druze community who clashed with police this week while protesting against the construction of wind turbines in the Golan Heights. At least four Druze were seriously hurt and 12 cops were injured in the massive rioting on Wednesday.
Ben Gvir has taken a hardline approach to the Druze protests against the wind farm and has vowed to continue the work.
Law enforcement, said Ben Gvir on Saturday, can’t be “giving in to the violence of the Druze on the one hand, and using an iron fist against the settlers on the other hand.”
“When some of the Druze, who do not represent the entire community, act with open violence against Israel Police officers, who had my full support in the incident, it was finally decided, against my position, to withdraw,” said Ben Gvir of Wednesday’s riots in the Golan Heights.
But “on the Ayalon [Highway in Tel Aviv], hundreds riot” and police show tolerance, said the far-right minister in reference to Saturday night’s weekly protests against the government’s judicial overhaul plans, now in their 25th week.
“On the other hand, against the settlers, the population with the highest military draft rates and that contributes the most to Israel, severe collective punishment is currently being applied that is unacceptable,” he said.
However, Economy Minister Nir Barkat said the situation was “very serious and [he] accepts the defense establishment’s position on the matter.”
“This behavior is very serious and we need to act against it decisively,” he told Army Radio. “It causes damage in the wider world.”
Otzma Yehudit lawmaker Limor Son Har Melech also took aim at the security establishment on Saturday, tweeting that “safely eating hummus and refueling the car” as the victims of Tuesday’s terror attack were doing, was “a basic right for every citizen.
“If the security establishment is unable to provide this basic protection, then we will see the phenomena of citizens choosing to take charge of protecting their lives,” she added.
Shlomo Ne’eman, head of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, said that settlers felt like they were not being protected.
“The Palestinians started a war against us, and in a war it is not possible to go along with the world’s view of the fabric of life,” he told Army Radio.
The security establishment should “invest all its efforts and resources to eradicate terrorism and provide security to the residents” of West Bank settlements and outposts, she said.
Since Tuesday, groups of settlers have set fire to vehicles and homes in Palestinian towns, ripped up books at a mosque and, in some cases, opened fire on people, in attacks branded as “nationalist terrorism in the full sense of the term” by Israel Defense Forces chief Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, Shin Bet head Ronen Bar, and Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai in a joint statement on Saturday.
On Saturday, several dozen settlers rampaged through the West Bank village of Umm Safa, setting cars and homes alight, and shooting weapons, on the fifth consecutive day of the vigilante attacks.
Four suspects, including an off-duty soldier, were detained over the violent attack.
On Friday, police said they had arrested four people in connection with the violence earlier in the week, without giving further details.
Hours after the Tuesday terror attack near Eli, an unknown number of settler vigilantes rampaged through several Palestinian towns in the northern West Bank, including Huwara, the scene of another deadly settler riot earlier this year after a terror attack that killed two Israeli brothers.
On Wednesday, hundreds of settlers also tore through the Palestinian towns of Turmus Ayya and Urif — shortly after the victims of the attack were buried — shooting at residents, setting homes, cars and fields on fire and terrorizing residents. One Palestinian, 27-year-old Omar Qattin, was killed in unclear circumstances in Turmus Ayya.
The four suspects detained on Saturday were being questioned by the Shin Bet security agency. According to the right-wing legal aid group Honenu, the initial four suspects were being denied legal counsel.